In telling a story there’s an implicit bond, an embrace: Graham Swift

In telling a story there’s an implicit bond, an embrace: Graham Swift
Graham Swift. Photo courtesy Simon & Schuster India

For Graham Swift, fiction is fundamentally about sharing — it takes two, a writer and a reader: ‘A writer writes alone and a reader reads alone, but the process leads to a remarkable form of human communion’ 

Booker-winning author Graham Swift, 68, is among the greatest of writers writing in English today. He has published 10 novels, three collections of stories and a book of non-fiction (essays, portraits, poetry and reflections on his life in writing). The paperback edition of his latest novel, Mothering Sunday, was released by Simon & Schuster India recently.

Mothering Sunday, which was published last year, is an intensely moving, sensuous and engrossing story of Jane Fairchild, orphan and housemaid, set in a single day — March 30th 1924, Mothering Sunday. The novel chronicles how her life is shaped by this day. The novel shows both the story of a life and the life that stories can magically contain. 

Three of Swift’s novels have been adapted for films: Waterland (1992), Shuttlecock (1993) and Last Orders (2002). Last Orders was the joint-winner of the 1996 James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the winner of the 1996 Man Booker Prize. His works have been translated into over 30 languages. 

For Swift, books don’t go away when he has written them, they stay with him. He believes that fiction is fundamentally about sharing — it takes two, a writer and a reader. “In the act of telling a story there’s an implicit bond, an embrace. A writer writes alone and a reader reads alone, but the process leads to a remarkable form of human communion,” says Swift, adding that writing works against division or isolation. “It’s cohesive. It can remind us, honestly and intimately, of what we all have in common,” he says. 

Excerpts from an interview with The Punch: 

The Punch: In Mothering Sunday, through the story of Jane Fairchild, a maidservant who later becomes a celebrated author, what is perhaps implied is that it is often through stories that we find ourselves, discover who we are. What was its genesis? Were you interested in exploring the parallel lives that each of us leads?

Graham Swift: I can’t emphasise too much that Mothering Sunday simply ‘happened’. I don’t recall any period of premeditation. One day it wasn’t there, the next I was suddenly (and happily) working on it. Its main elements came together very quickly. So questions about aims and intentions don’t really apply. I felt my way instinctively with it. It may be that some people find themselves through stories, but this isn’t what happens with my central character, Jane. She finds herself (and becomes a story-teller) through life, through experience and through what she anyway has inside her. The idea that we all lead ‘parallel lives’ makes no sense to me.

The Punch: Did you want this novel to be a “feminist Cindrella” as some reviewers have pointed out? How vital were the subtexts of poverty, serendipity and ambition interwoven into the fairy story?

Graham Swift: I didn’t conceive of it as a ‘feminist Cinderella’, though if some people see it that way I don’t particularly mind — interpretation is free. Certainly my novel’s about someone from humble, disadvantaged beginnings who goes on to have a fulfilled and successful life. So I give it the epigraph from the Cinderella story — ‘You shall go to the ball!’. But my novel isn’t a fairy tale, it belongs to the real world. Obviously my central character is a woman, but she doesn’t achieve what she does through any feminist or other political agenda, she achieves it through her own personal initiative. It may be that in her later life feminism becomes part of her writing, but there’s no evidence for this in my book.

The Punch: Also crucial to the story is its setting and context: post-World War I, less class-bound and more egalitarian England. Were you also interested in dwelling on the deep shadows that the WWI cast on British families, inheritance and the class hierarchies?

Graham Swift: My novel reflects — intimately — the great loss of the First World War. Its first line refers to dead boys. Jane has to clean the rooms (and she reads the books) of these dead boys. The two families in the novel have lost four sons. The households have come to grief in other ways — they’re not as well off as they once were — but grief itself shadows the novel. That said, it’s an extremely joyful novel. It’s full of erotic pleasure, of general joie de vivre, of delight in life. It’s a love story and it’s the story of Jane’s fulfilment. And it mainly takes place on a glorious spring day. It certainly depicts the class hierarchies of its time, but it would be absurd to say that this is what it’s essentially about. There’s a line early in the book: ‘The perfect politics of nakedness.’ And the book is full of nakedness.

The Punch: The novel takes place over the course of a single day: Mothering Sunday, March 30, 1924. And yet it has an amazing sweep, embracing a whole life of nearly 100 years. How significant was this, and the novel’s structure, to the story of the maidservant?

Graham Swift: I’ve concentrated in other novels on single days or short periods of time which yet open up to whole lives or long periods of history. Last Orders would be a good example. I’m clearly drawn to this, and one reason may be that it simply gives a sense of existential intensity — the feeling that life itself is ‘but a day’ and must be grasped. Mothering Sunday does indeed come to embrace a whole life and a long one, but this is all projected into the future, it’s not retrospective. The bulk of the action and focus is on one special day in 1924 when Jane is only twenty-two. So when we glimpse her in the future as an old woman of eighty or ninety we are still seeing, I hope, the young woman in the prime of her life — because that woman’s still there inside her. This is another way in which I think the novel’s very joyful and positive. It may have as its background a great loss of youth, but it’s about the persistence of youth.

The Punch: Could you tell us about some of your influences when you conceived this novel? Some reviewers, like Michiko Kakutani of NYT, have pointed out that there are little “nods and bows” of Julian Fellowes, Woolf, Ishiguro and McEwan in the novel.

Graham Swift: As my first answer indicated, there was no premeditation, and so no influences. I simply wrote from myself, which is what I always do. The ‘nods and bows’ some reviewers have referred to are nonsense. Anyone can see, for example, that my novel is a million miles from Downton Abbey — for a start it’s placed in the real world. My book is its own creation. Of course, other books have been set in the days of servants. So what? Idle comparison is the last resort of critics.

The Punch: In a recent piece in The Guardian, you make some incredibly interesting observations. “A good novel is like a welcome pause in the flow of existence,” you wrote, underlying that a successful novel removes us from “the tyranny of our sense of time”. In your fiction, both stories and novels, do you consciously set out to remove the reader from his/her sense of time?

Graham Swift: Again I’d say it was not a matter of ‘setting out’ to do any particular thing, but if my readers lose their sense of time because they’re gripped and immersed, they feel they’re part of the story, then that’s fine.

The Punch: In that piece, you also zero down on immediacy, terming it as the “the life-blood of all fiction” and how, in good works of fiction it helps transcend duration or chronology, making the reader care less about the number of pages or whether it is set “100 or 300 years” ago. You also conclude that this immediacy is closely bound up with intimacy and the “intimate fusion of the corporeal and the mental, whatever the narrative framework”. Did you reach this conclusion early on as most of your works seem to closely adhere to this?

Graham Swift: I’d have to give a similar answer to my last one and also refer readers to that Guardian piece. I say things in it that are important to me and, I hope, to the experience of reading as well as writing fiction. I don’t want just to repeat here what I say elsewhere, but yes, it’s true that for a long time I’ve felt that the “intimate fusion of the corporeal and the mental” is one of the tasks of fiction, it’s almost the stuff of fiction itself.

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